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Arboreal Art Awes at Arnold Arboretum

Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum, a public park famous for its “living collection” of almost 15 thousand plant specimens and one of the University’s most comprehensive “en plein air” scientific research facilities, is also fertile ground for local artistic expression. “Artists in the Arboretum,” on display at the park’s Hunnewell building through Oct. 19, showcases the work of 27 local artists with personal relationships to the park. The strength of this exhibition lies in its ability to be viewed piece by piece, as an array of discrete intricate dialogues between artist and nature, and as a single vibrant, polyphonic homage to the park that inspired them.  

Carefully crafted in media as far-ranging as watercolor and handmade paper, each piece explores an artist’s distinct story with the park. Jason Peter Williams’s pieces consist of rapid, gestural pastel drawings of his favorite locations in the Arboretum, such as Bussey Brook. “I drew it in the four seasons,” Williams says of his drawing of the brook. “I never tired of the spot—every time it was an entirely new piece.” Although Williams has made pastels of other parts of Boston, such as Weeks Bridge in Cambridge, he does not consider himself an urban artist due to his relationship with the Arboretum. “When you come [to the Arboretum] you are no longer in the city,” he says. “You cannot hear a single motor. With the Arboretum I can still be considered an artist who just draws nature.”

For Susan Hardy-Brown, curatorial assistant and former worker at the Cultivated Herbarium, her piece tells the story of her professional relationship to the Arboretum. At a cursory glance, her piece looks like an amalgam of recycled paper, pine needles, and string. In truth, however, each component symbolizes a part of her past as a worker at the park. At the piece’s base is a relief map of Hemlock Hill, a favorite of many visitors, known for its spectacular views of the park’s 281 acres of land. The second layer is a delicate overlay of handmade paper, which she intentionally thinned to a transparent membrane at certain areas to expose parts of the map. One of these is exposed areas is printed with tiny numbers, the accession numbers of the trees from which Brown collected samples as a worker in the Herbarium.

Just as meticulous as the pieces themselves is their strategic arrangement around the room. As Arboretum volunteer interpreter Patricia Cohens puts it, “The pieces speak to each other. It’s important for each piece to have a chance, but also for them to interact with each other to make an interesting combination.” Some successful strategies include putting a brightly colored painting of a flower on a little wall panel perpendicular to a black-and-white photograph of an acorn, which enabled the viewer to enjoy each piece in isolation.

In other cases, this disparity has a complementary effect, enabling contrasting pieces to work harmoniously together. For example, Brown’s piece is placed adjacent to a piece by head arborist John DelRosso, a hiking stick on which was inscribed the quote, “In every walk with nature man receives more than he seeks.” The hiking stick can be seen as a silent allusion to the hiking trails visible on the map portion of Brown’s work, a duet which bridges two very different experiences with the Arboretum. Such fluidity between the pieces forms the pith of the exhibition. As Brown puts it, in the end, all pieces—and the artists themselves—share the purpose of “bring[ing] people here and celebrat[ing] such a variety of expression that is all tied to a single wonderful location: the Arnold Arboretum.”

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